NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — There’s no question Naval Station Norfolk has been an important part of the Hampton Roads community for a century. All month long, 10 On Your Side has been covering its place in history.
World War II brought sailors by the droves to Norfolk. They packed the streets and lined the base. But few living outside the base may know that the sailors also spent much of their free time packed into another part of base: McClure Field. Built in 1917, she’s as old as the base herself, and has the title of second oldest brick baseball stadium in the nation.
“It was recreation in terms of physical activity. A lot of these leagues, they had sailors and airmen in these baseball leagues playing to keep them fit, give them something to do until they were ready to go overseas,” explained Joe Judge, the historian with the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.
The players didn’t just swing the bat for bragging rights — the Navy formed a real and very competitive team filled with famous major leaguers.
Anthony Benning, the Naval Station Norfolk Fitness Director, has been researching the Naval Training Station Team for the better part of the year.
“Bob Feller was on his way to sign his next contract when Pearl Harbor occurred and he heard about it. He stopped the car, pulled over, called the Cleveland Indians and said, ‘I won’t be resigning. I’m going to enlist,’ and went straight to a recruiter’s office.”
Feller, later known as the “Heater from Van Meter,” played 18 seasons for the Indians much after his Navy service.
There were many other big names, too. Dom Dimaggo played 11 years for the Boston Red Sox, but first fought his way into the Navy, writing to the war department to get a waiver for poor eyesight. PeeWee Reece, Johnny Pesky and other superstars passed through the Naval Training Station Team.
“The 1942 Naval Training Station Team went 92-8 and that was against college, semi pro, and pro teams,” Benning explained.
Back then, between 5,000 and 8,000 people would cram into the bleachers to watch the Training Station Team play.
“I think it was a big, big morale booster. Baseball was extremely popular in that time,” said Judge.
Now, the Navy hopes to bring back the spirit of the past with a new game to commemorate 100 years of Naval Station Norfolk next Friday, June 30. Anthony Benning has been planning the game for months.
“We definitely want to be able to bring that excitement back, get everybody out to experience what it was like in those times — you know, the greatest generation, World War II era — and give them a feel for how exciting it was at that time.”
Contractors have been working around the clock to bring McClure Field back to her old glory. Benning says they plan to fill McClure Field, plus extra portable bleachers, hoping to draw a crowd of World War II proportions. But that’s not all — they’re planning exhibits, a carnival and classic cars.
“We hope to be able to transport people back to 1943. So when they walk on the block, we want them to be able to know they are not in 2017 anymore, but back in 1943. They’ll be able to see some classic cars out front from that time period. It will be like a museum when they walk in — an outdoor museum.”
If you’d like to learn more about the game scheduled for Friday, June 30, click here.